We’re still about six weeks from Week 1 and five weeks before the internet is flooded with predictions for the upcoming season, but you can rest assured that the Vikings are going to be a chic playoff pick. Much of the hype surrounding the Vikings focuses on the maturation of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the return of Adrian Peterson and a talented defense that returns nine starters. If the Vikings are indeed going to make the playoffs, however, they’ll need Bridgewater’s weapons to step up and make plays down the field. That’s where Charles Johnson enters the equation.
A year ago at this time, Johnson was barely on the Vikings’ radar, let alone that of fantasy owners. He was toiling away on the Browns’ practice squad at the beginning of the season, still less than a year removed from knee surgery. The Vikings weren’t in the market for a receiver until they released Jerome Simpson, who was a week away from returning from a three-game suspension for drunk driving, after they learned he was also cited for marijuana possession. Later that same week, Johnson was a Viking.
The receiver didn’t get a chance to prove himself until Week 11 against the Bears. In that game, Johnson played more than one-third of the team’s snaps for the first time all season and caught six of his seven targets for 87 yards. The next week against the Packers, he had three catches—and 11 targets—for 52 yards and a score. Shortly thereafter, he was the team’s starting X receiver, finishing the season with 31 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns despite getting meaningful playing time in just seven games.
Those numbers may not jump off the page, but consider that Johnson was still recovering from knee surgery for the balance of last season and may have played the entire year at less than full strength. It may have been his second season on an NFL roster, but the 12 games he played with the Vikings last season represent the first regular season action of his career. Johnson played on just 19.1% of snaps in those first five games but turned a corner when the Vikings finally gave him an honest shot at doing so.
Coming from tiny Division II Grand Valley State, Johnson didn’t get much of a look in the 2013 draft. He wasn’t invited to the scouting combine, but those who saw him at his pro day came away impressed. The 6'2", 217-pound Johnson ran a 4.38 and 4.39 40-yard dash for the scouts in attendance, impressing Ted Thompson enough for the Packers to select him early in the seventh round. Johnson proved then that he had both the size and speed to be an impact receiver in the NFL, and he put that into practice last year.
Johnson’s speed makes him a major downfield weapon for Bridgewater. He had a total of 58 targets last season, and 13 of those (22.4%) traveled at least 20 yards in the air. For comparison’s sake, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery, DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green were all within one percentage point of that same mark. Johnson caught just two of those 13 targets and dropped another, but both catches went for six points. Even with Mike Wallace in town, Johnson is going to be the Vikings’ primary option stretching the field.
Having said that, Wallace’s presence does allow Johnson to work the short and intermediate game more than he did last year. Thanks to his size, he is able to bully corners and safeties on those power routes. That size also makes him a significant threat in the red zone. Deep and end-zone targets are the lifeblood of a receiver’s fantasy value. Johnson figures to get plenty of both from a budding star at quarterback in an improving offense.
Johnson isn’t going to cost you much in your draft or auction. His average draft position as of this writing was 85.1, which places him 34th among receivers and at the beginning of the eighth round of a 12-team draft. That’s a pittance for a guy who has legitimate 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown upside. The other receivers in his neighborhood include Kevin White, Wallace, Nelson Agholor, Roddy White, Michael Floyd and Davante Adams. Each of those players has his respective virtues and upside, but Floyd is the only one I’d take before Johnson. The knee injury is completely behind him, and he comes into this season with the confidence of knowing he’s the Vikings' starting X receiver, while still being driven by the memory of being overlooked as a prospect. Don’t make the same mistake in your draft that the entire league did back in 2013.
NFL Training Camp Over the Years
Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen (9) and teammates listen to head coach Vince Lombardi at R.F.K. Memorial Stadium.
Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank pokes the stomach of Dave Foley on the first day of training camp at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Quarterback Joe Namath demonstrates his throwing form at the Jets' training camp at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Steelers running back Franco Harris signs autographs for young fans after training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn.
Defending is Bill Thompson's business, as he sharpens his skills from his right cornerback position for the Broncos.
The Dolphins begin a day of training with a 12-minute run in the heat of Miami.
Steelers wide receivers John Stallworth (82) and Lynn Swann pose during training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn.
The Redskins' new head coach Joe Gibbs leads the rookies in exercise drills during the first day of training camp in Carlisle, Penn.
Vikings head coach Bud Grant reviews a play with his offense during training camp in Mankato, Minn.
The Bears' new head coach Mike Ditka smiles during training camp at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill.
The Giants' new head coach Bill Parcells shouts instructions to his players at training camp in Pleasantville, N.Y.
Broncos rookie quarterback John Elway does pull-ups during training camp at University of Northern Colorado.
Miami quarterback Dan Marino and teammates struggle through a 12-minute run at Dolphins' training camp in Miami.
Mike Singletary helps teammate Wilber Marshall stretch during Bears training camp at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Jim McMahon and Walter Payton sign autographs for fans during training camp at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Steelers defensive coordinator Tony Dungy instructs his players during a training camp session.
The popular Walter Payton signs autographs during training camp.
Future Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young loosen up during 49ers training camp at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif.
Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe stretches during training camp at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I.
Running backs Jerome Bettis (36) and Tim Lester work on their form at Rams' camp. Bettis was the first round selection, 10th overall, of the Rams from the University of Notre Dame.
Legendary Packers defensive end Reggie White takes a bike ride as two fans try and chase him down.
Placekicker Tony Meola (1), who served as goalkeeper during the U.S. soccer team's 1994 World Cup run, stretches with Nick Lowery during Jets training camp at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard (left) and teammate Willie Jackson sign autographs while standing in trash cans filled with ice water during training camp for the expansion Jaguars at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus.
Dallas offensive lineman Nate Newton attempts to run sprints.
Miami new head coach Jimmy Johnson drills rookie linebacker Zach Thomas during opening day of Dolphins' training camp in Davie, Fla.
Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin ride in a golf cart during the Cowboys training camp at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.
Bryant Young (97) greets teammate Ken Norton Jr. during 49ers training camp.
Quarterbacks Ty Detmer, Thad Busby, Mike Cook and Tim Couch practice taking snaps from the shotgun formation at the Browns training camp. This was Cleveland's first season of football since Art Modell moved the original franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner signs autographs following the Rams' practice during training camp at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning drops back with backup quarterbacks Pete Gonzalez (left) and Kelly Holcomb (right) during a drill at the teams' training camp in Terre Haute, Ind.
New England wide receiver Terry Glenn loses possession of the ball to a dog during Patriots training camp in Foxboro, Mass.
Eddie George gives Bruce Matthews a towel after he was doused with a bucket for his 40th birthday after practice at the Titans' training camp in Nashville, Tenn.
Pro wrestler Brock Lesnar fights through the offensive line in a morning drill during Vikings training camp in Mankato, Minn. Lesnar played during the preseason for Minnesota, but ended up being a late cut.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer looks to throw during training camp at Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss get in sync during a training camp practice in Foxboro, Mass.
Newly acquired quarterback Michael Vick (7) speaks with veteran Donovan McNabb during Eagles training camp in Philadelphia.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez shows off his receiving skills at training camp in Cortland, N.Y.
Broncos guard Zane Beadles dives into the mud as rookies partake in the slip and slide fumble drill during training camp at Dove Valley in Englewood, Colo.
Chargers defensive end Antonio Garay, a man of many hairstyles, signs autographs for fans.
Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery stretches prior to practice during training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt takes a selfie with a fan after training camp practice in Houston.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III takes a selfie with a group of fans after training camp practice in Richmond, Va.